Food Hub, Food Truck and Food Education: Northern Colorado School District Takes Farm to School to Next Level

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Andrea Northup, USDA Farm to School Regional Lead for the Mountain Plains Region, and Helen Dombalis, Programs Director and Interim Policy Director for the National Farm to School Network

A bin of acorn squash sits on a pallet at the Weld County School District 6 central kitchen, right next to a bin of yellow onions and a 1,000 pound tote of russet potatoes – all locally-grown.  A walk through the facility is enough to convince anyone that Weld County School District 6 is committed to scratch-cooked, locally-grown food for its 22,000 students at 35 schools.  In this rural Colorado school district, where over 40 languages are spoken at home and 66 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price meals, fresh, tasty food is the norm – even down to the green chili, a southwestern favorite roasted in-house using three varieties of local peppers.

About a quarter of the central kitchen is dedicated to processing fresh fruits and vegetables.  Mushrooms are sliced, carrots are shredded, and onions are diced.  With funding from a USDA Farm to School Grant in 2013, this Food Hub portion of the kitchen was furnished with tables, wash stations and equipment to process local food for Weld County’s own meals and for other districts in the area.

Natalie Leffler is the Food Hub Manager at Weld County School District 6.  Her job is to coordinate partnerships with farmers, ranchers and local businesses to source as much local food as possible, defined as grown or produced within a 400 mile radius. Natalie manages an annual bid to establish relationships and contracts.  Growers must submit a food safety checklist with their bid documents, which Natalie confirms with an in-person site visit, so the district can rest assured that the local products are safe.  

Matt Poling, the school district’s Executive Chef, assures that menu planning, recipe development, and production processes maximize the use of local products.  The freezer is full of shredded local zucchini (for blending into tomato sauce), mirepoix (the age-old combination of onion, celery and carrots used as a base for soups), and other local ingredients to incorporate into meals in the off-season.  The team even prepares mashed potatoes made with local red potatoes and home-made gravy.  Locally-grown and dried pinto beans are sorted and cooked into refried beans or chili.  

Just outside the facility are four giant compost bins designed to turn food scraps from the kitchen into compost for the district’s school gardens, funded through an innovative partnership with the West Greeley Conservation District.  Sometimes El Fuego, the district’s flashy food truck, is parked outside, too.  But typically the truck is out roaming the district, serving up favorites like Baracoa street tacos and the yakisoba noodle bowl to students and school staff.

The district goes beyond local procurement – school gardens, student wellness, and food education are three major areas of focus. Plans are underway to transform a sandy, unused portion of a nearby schoolyard into an educational farm focused on student engagement and employment.  Called “Growing Grounds,” the project vision includes raised bed, an orchard, a teaching kitchen, hoop houses, and a greenhouse. Weld County School District 6 takes innovation and creativity to a new level with its farm to school program!

Inspired by Weld County School District’s 6 and their innovative farm to school programs? USDA is currently accepting applications for the Farm to School Grant Program, which assists eligible entities in implementing farm to school programs that improve access to local foods in eligible schools. Consider applying for a grant to bring more local food into school meals, promote healthy eating habits and expand markets for American farmers and producers. Applications are due December 8, 2016.

Good Food, Great Kids

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

What We Can Learn from Six Organizations Advancing a Farm to Early Care and Education Approach

Photo credit: Mark Luinenburg, courtesy of pfc Social Impact Advisors

By Gayle Peterson, pfc Social Impact Advisors, Co-founder & Senior Managing Director, and Hilda Vega, pfc Social Impact Advisors, Vice President of Programs

In a time of change, many of us reflect on our values and passions and consider the kind of community we want our children to live in. We consider various policy options and how they have (or have not) worked to improve the lives of children and families across the country. Those of us involved in the fields of healthy food access or education will be looking for supportive policies in these areas, hoping that policy makers will continue projects like Let’s Move! or increased funding for Head Start programs. We’ll also hope that current battles, like those over Child Nutrition Reauthorization, will be resolved with the best possible outcome for children’s access to healthy food. A supportive policy environment, along with ingenuity and perseverance from the early care and education community are vital components to ensuring that all of our nation’s young children have access to healthy, nutritional foods and high quality learning opportunities.

With this need in mind, pfc Social Impact Advisors, in partnership with the National Farm to School Network and the BUILD Initiative, has developed a new set of case studies that highlight best practices from service providers using farm to ECE as an approach to support health, wellness, high-quality education, and community change. Part of the Good Food, Great Kids project, these case studies explore how multiple cities and regions embarked on the journey of bringing farm to ECE to vulnerable children in Head Start programs. Here’s a snapshot of what we learned:

  • In Minneapolis/St. Paul, we learned about Hmong farmers working with Head Start centers and other local food service providers to enliven their menus with local food.
  • In Washington, D.C., we met with staff and children of CentroNia, a multicultural and bilingual community and education center that incorporates school gardening, a healthy food curriculum, local procurement, and on-site scratch cooking to help students connect with their food.
  • The Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (BSRC) in Brooklyn is working to break down myths about farm to ECE by sharing their success in working with a local food hub and other partners to bring fresh food to early care programs and the greater community of Central Brooklyn.
  • The Northeast Iowa Food & Fitness Initiative, which works across six counties in Iowa, links together diverse community members such as local colleges, human service provides, and food service provider partners works to help more children under the age of five (and their families) learn about and have affordable access to healthy food and knowledge about it.
  • In Kansas City, Mo, two concerned community members—one a chef and the other a farmer and promoter of better access to affordable, healthy food-- worked to create a program  that offers chef-driven meals in Head Start and other educational programs, healthy food education and access for children and families, and other experiential resources for children across the city.
  • In Philadelphia, the Norris Square Community Alliance is embarking on a strategic planning process with community members to formally incorporate a farm to ECE program targeting 700 children and striving to benefit all families and neighbors who are part of the Norris Square community.

You can dig deeper into each of the case studies here.

Accompanying these new case studies is the Good Food, Great Kids policy research report, which highlights some of the most pressing challenges faced by farm to ECE programs, such as limited funding at the national and state levels to support these activities. It also highlights needs to have the space and resources to think more intentionally about equity, family engagement, the impact of policy realities on care providers, the need for bridge-building across sectors, and the need for more research about the impact of farm to ECE on child outcomes.

There is no one-size fits all approach to farm to ECE. Yet, the six sites featured in these new resources found that bringing together complex issues like good food and early childhood education present a new way forward to ensure a good start and stronger future for children, especially those in vulnerable neighborhoods. Their experiences offer important guidance for others hoping to make nutritious food and high-quality early childcare and education a reality in their communities. By sharing and learning from stories like these, we can create momentum, spur innovation, and generate change that will help ensure that access to healthy, nutritional food is a right, not a privilege, for all young children.

Small steps, big impact

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

For the past 31 days, millions of schools, farmers and communities across the country have been celebrating the movement that’s connecting kids to fresh, healthy food and supporting local economies. From Florida to Alaska and everywhere in between, people are recognizing the power of farm to school to benefit people, planet and profit. That’s what National Farm to School Month is all about!

This year’s campaign celebrated the small steps everyone can take to get informed, get involved and take action for farm to school in their own communities and across the country. More than 600 people took the One Small Step Pledge, and shared the small steps they’d be taking in October:  

  • Our 28 elementary schools will be taste testing fresh, local produce, experiencing healthy cooking demos using farm fresh foods, and learning about their agricultural heritage - Texas
  • Continuing to plug away at networking with community partners that can bring together farmers to create a system for getting fresh produce to Early Childhood programs - North Carolina
  • Hosting our very first Farmer's Market with community farmers and produce from our very own Edible School Yard - California
  • Partnering with a local orchard to make homemade apple sauce in the classrooms and organizing a Big Apple Crunch Rally - New York
  • Buying local produce for my kids lunches and classroom snacks this month - Washington
  • We will be serving blueberry juice with blueberries grown in South Georgia - Georgia

At the National Farm to School Network, we’ve been leading Farm to School Month celebrations by sharing great stories of farm to school innovations, successes and impacts – like how farm to school activities are reducing school food waste, supporting family farms, and growing the next generation of food leaders.

We also celebrated on Capitol Hill. Throughout the summer – and at events like the 8th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference and Farm Aid 2016 – we collected paper plates with messages of support for farm to school and healthy school meals to share with lawmakers. On Oct. 5, we partnered with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to deliver more than 550 paper plates to legislators who have been pushing for an increase in farm to school funding and support in the Child Nutrition Act. See a recap of the delivery day here.

And, we hosted a #FarmtoSchool101 tweet chat with Slow Food USA and Farm Credit to spread awareness and answer questions about the movement. More than 175 people joined the conversation on social media, sharing stories about the positive impact farm to school has in their communities. See highlights here.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and farm to school champions celebrate Arkansas Farm to School Month.

Regionally, millions of students celebrated Farm to School Month with events like the Great Lakes Great Apple Crunch, Midwest Grate Apple Crunch, and Southeast Crunch. In fact, there have been Farm to School Month celebrations in every state this month. Governors in Arkansas, Hawai’i, Minnesota, Nebraska and Rhode Island made proclamations declaring October Farm to School Month in their states. Oregon brought legislators to the lunchroom to see farm to school in action, Georgia got kids to dig their hands in the soil with “Leaf it to Spinach,” and Washington students sampled local food for Taste Washington Day. We could keep going!

Farm to school is a grassroots movement powered by people like you, taking small steps every day to bring more local food sourcing and food and agriculture education to students across the nation. There are 334 days to continue taking small steps to grow and strengthen the movement before Farm to School Month 2017! Help us keep the momentum going by joining our network and stay up-to-date on the latest stories, new resources, policy actions, learning opportunities and more. Let's keep the small steps coming all year long!

Thank you to this year’s National Farm to School Month sponsors and supporters – Aetna Foundation, Captain Planet Foundation, Farm Aid, Organic Valley, Chartwells, High Mowing Organic Seeds and Safer Brand – and the 230+ outreach partner organizations that have helped make Farm to School Month 2016 a success.